COVID-19 and its impact on schooling, teaching and student wellbeing

teacher in a classroom

The Stretton Institute webinar on COVID-19 and its impact on schooling, teaching and student wellbeing brought together a panel of experts to discuss the unprecedented disruptions caused by the pandemic to schools and schooling in Australia and globally. It addressed a wide range of issues including the impact of COVID-19 on educational outcomes and student wellbeing, teachers’ professional practice, teacher wellbeing and the teaching profession more broadly. This webinar also addressed the impact on families, school culture and policy. 

Facilitated by Professor Faye McCallum (Head, School of Education), the expert presenters were:

  • Professor Lindsay Oades (Director, Centre for Positive Psychology at The University of Melbourne)
  • Associate Professor Matthew White (Deputy Head, School of Education)
  • Professor Lea Waters AM (Inaugural Gerry Higgins Chair in Positive Psychology, The University of Melbourne).

The webinar attracted over 550 registrants from 30 countries. It was also streamed live on Facebook.

Context: COVID-19 educational disruptions and response

After formal introductions, Professor McCallum began by providing the audience context to the webinar topic. She highlighted that COVID-19 had affected (based on UNESCO estimates) more than 1.5 billion learners (or 91.3% of total enrolled learners) worldwide at its peak and that it has had a catastrophic impact, and caused trauma, to school communities across the world.  

Despite this, Professor McCallum believed that schools will play a critical role in providing regeneration and hope as the world moves towards the recovery and rebuilding phase. Professor McCallum, however, warned that the impact from COVID-19 would be long-lasting for learners, teachers, parents and communities.

The impact of the pandemic as a health crisis was immediate. As the number of reportable cases decreased for many countries due to rapid government intervention, the social and economic consequences of COVID-19 became a prominent issue across many sectors, including in education. The impact was severe and had led to school closures across 194 countries with children forced to learn from home and parents charged with home schooling responsibilities for the first time.

Even as children have started returning to school, the pandemic’s adverse effects on school and schooling have remained. These included disrupted curriculum, interrupted learning, equity issues related to access to resources by learners, increased stress on parents who must now ‘home school’ while working from home, increased workload and stress on teachers and school leaders alike.

Professor McCallum also emphasised that even before the pandemic, the education sector was facing a crisis of its own; a crisis in attracting and retaining teachers and a global shortage of qualified teachers with an estimated 69 million said to be needed by 2030. COVID-19 has brought significant increases to teachers’ workload and stress. It has also disrupted pre-service teachers’ University studies.

For teachers, this has meant they have had to create new resources, learn new skills, and adapt to new ways of interacting with students and parents, all on short notice. For pre-service teachers, many have experienced cancellation of face-to-face university classes in favour of online classes as well as the loss of professional practice (school) placements. Neither situation will help address the global shortage of qualified teachers or teacher retention issues. Instead, both are likely to exacerbate the shortfall further.

Policy implications of COVID-19

Following Professor McCallum, Professor Lindsay Oades presented on the short, medium and long-term implications of COVID-19 on schooling, teaching and student wellbeing from an education policy perspective.

Professor Oades focussed on ideas or ways of thinking about the major systems change that just occurred and its impact on children, students, and more broadly on the endeavour of education and education systems.

He looked at how COVID-19 had systematically dismantled society; it had stopped us from going to schools, to work, and it had stopped us from socialising. He asked: what could we learn from COVID-19? That is if COVID-19 is our teacher, what is it teaching us? One way to think about or answer this is through the lens of three literacies: wellbeing literacy; systems literacy; and futures literacy.

The first, wellbeing literacy, refers to the idea of how we communicate about, and for, our wellbeing. What has emerged from COVID-19 is that people have begun to pay more attention to, and explicitly discuss wellbeing. They are paying more attention in their use of language during COVID-19 discussions, with many choosing to use the term ‘physical distancing’ over ‘social distancing’. There has also been a rise in creative communication among people, both in school systems and in society, to connect and communicate with one another, to express connectedness and love in lieu of physical contact such as the placing of a teddy on a window.

Second, systems literacy, is the understanding and greater awareness of the systems in our lives where we are all interconnected. COVID-19, through its dismantling of our economy, has shown that we are all in this together. It showed how interconnected and interdependent we are, in particular, the importance of teachers and schools in our everyday lives.

Finally, futures literacy, is the idea that the future could be re-imagined. And that the re-imagined future could be used to guide our present and re-design our path forward.

Professor Oades then highlighted the importance of resilience and resilience systems. He emphasised that when we envisage our recovery and beyond, we should look beyond coping, adapting and transforming to the notion of anti-fragility, which is the strengthening of the system by shedding our weaker parts. Specifically, we should look beyond just adapting and use the opportunity of a crisis such as COVID-19 to provide a re-imagined future.

Professor Oades concluded by providing the following 8 key implications for policy:

  1. Teaching and learning is a reciprocal and relational process that can occur anywhere, not just in formal school settings.
  2. Education is intricately linked with health and flourishing. The separation of education and health systems are arbitrary, and we should stop “subsuming” education underneath medicine or into economic discourses.
  3. COVID-19 has presented an opportunity to shed the weaker parts of the system to make it a stronger whole, i.e.‘anti-fragility.’
  4. Schools have been remote from home rather than the other way around. The idea of “homework” will never carry the same meaning again.
  5. The digital divide is real and needs to be addressed, more from an economic policy perspective rather than an educational policy perspective.
  6. The concept of learning environments and rethinking (and regulating) how real estate is described, such that it incorporates a description of learning/working spaces, e.g. 2 bedrooms, 1 bathroom and 1 connected workspace.
  7. Due to increased connectivity, the opportunity for parental involvement may be higher than ever before, presenting opportunities to re-imagine education.
  8. The COVID-19 “analyser” of society says we need ‘wellbeing literacy’, ‘systems literacy’ and ‘futures literacy’ when we go through the process of re-thinking, re-designing and looking forward beyond the pandemic.

COVID-19’s impact on wellbeing, learning and teaching, and professional practice

Associate Professor Mathew White, addressed the immediate, mid and long-term implications for wellbeing, learning and teaching in schools from a professional practice perspective. ‘Professional practice’ herein refers to the way teachers plan to implement effective learning and teaching.

Associate Professor White began by highlighting that, while we used the figure of 1.29 billion affected learners for the webinar’s abstract, at its peak, it was in fact 1.59 billion or around 91% of enrolled learners. Not only does this show how rapidly the pandemic can, and had, changed the global education landscape, but also the urgency that teachers have had to respond to the challenges to minimise disruption of learning to their students and their adaptability adaptability.  

It is important to recognise that teachers have continued to teach despite school closures worldwide. They have had to change the mode of delivery on short notice; rapidly converting courses and creating content for online learning and adapting to an online teaching environment. Why? For the maintenance of continuity of learning for their students. What this highlighted is the complexity around the role of teachers, teaching, learning and the elements of motivation and engagement within schools.

Associate Professor White referred to recent OECD report, A framework to guide an education response to the COVID-19 Pandemic of 2020  ” (Figure 1)

Figure 1: OECD Report: A framework to guide an education response to the COVID-19 Pandemic of 2020

Associate Professor White shared the results from two YouthInsight  surveys of young people aged 14 to 25 years regarding their sentiments on COVID-19. The survey results indicated that among the respondents:

  • The level of anxiety was rising
  • The majority understood and recognised that remote learning was a necessary immediate response to the pandemic, but 73% of the respondents also believed the remote model was not something they could live with permanently
  • 74% were concerned about the health of their family, and the longer-term impact COVID-19 may have on their schooling.

So, what does this mean for students and their families from lower socio-economic circumstances? Associate Professor White directed the audience to, and summarised, the recently published report by The Smith Family: COVID-19 Insights Snapshot: The challenges of surviving COVID-19 in Australia’s hardest hit communities ’ by The Smith Family

The Smith Family report highlighted a key themes and challenges faced by learners (and their families). First,  the pandemic reinforced the significant divide between those with and without access to technology. Second, there are children and their families struggling to cope with the challenges of schooling and studying from home. There are significant and overarching risks of learners from the group disengaging from schooling altogether, with students in Years 7 and 10 most susceptible. There are employment, unemployment and underemployment concern as well as concerns over the physical and mental wellbeing of students and their families.

Associate Professor White concluded his presentation by providing a list of adverse consequences of school closures (Figure 2) which was derived from a UNESCO list. He also introduced the audience to the OECD Learning Compass 2030  (figure 3), a new learning framework that:

  • Offers a broad vision of the types of competencies, including transformative, that learners will need to thrive in 2030
  • Was co-created by government representatives, academics, school leaders, teachers, students and social partners
  • Can continue to be refined over time
  • Has the wellbeing of society by 2030 as one of its ultimate goals

It would be interesting to see how the Learning Compass will be interpreted as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, how it will guide policy and how we reimagine moving forward from here.

It would be interesting to see how the Learning Compass will be interpreted as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, how it will guide policy and how we reimagine moving forward from here.

Adverse consequences of school closures

Interrupted learning

Confusion and stress for teachers

Parents unprepared for distance and home schooling

Challenges creating, maintaining, and improving distance learning

Gaps in childcare

High economic costs

Unintended strain on health-care systems

Increased pressure on schools and school systems that remain open

Rise in dropout rates

Increased exposure to violence and exploitation

Social isolation

Challenges measuring and validating learning

(Source: https://en.unesco.org/covid19/educationresponse/consequences )

Figure 2: Adverse consequences of school closures

Figure 2: Adverse consequences of school closures

COVID-19 and families

Finally, to round up the webinar, Professor Lea Waters AM, addressed the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on families.

Professor Waters drew on the work of Virginia Satir, a renowned family therapist who had extensively studied how families cope with sudden changes, to help explain how COVID-19 impacts families. Pre-COVID-19, family life was, for the most part, predictable and undulating. When confronted by an unpredictable event or sudden change, such as COVID-19, families will experience four distinct phases of coping as described in Table 1 below:

Table 1: Four phases of coping

Endings A phase where the family unit’s coping capacity dips and immediately rebound, albeit for a short period. “Normal life” as they know it ends. With COVID-19, the short-lived rebound of coping correlates to around the time the family readies themselves for working and learning from home.
Chaos A phase where the family unit’s coping capacity nose-dive and they experience a range of emotional responses from fear, confusion, frustration to anger. There may also have feelings of physical exhaustion, insomnia and changes in appetite, all of which are normal responses to situations of uncertainty. This phase coincides with the time that the family unit starts to work and study from home but struggles to adjust to the changed circumstances.
Integration A phase where the family unit begins to recover and build resilience. They begin to gain clarity and understanding of the situation and starts to get a sense of control and hope. This coincides with the time when people starts to understand the virus, how it spreads and how the curve can be or is being ‘flattened’. It is also a time when the family unit has successfully adjusted to working and studying from home.
New normal

A phase where the family unit returns to the previous normal levels of coping; undergoes a period of readjustment and return to business as usual

or

A phase where the family unit comes out of the event/crisis stronger and more resilient, i.e. moving from coping to the idea of anti-fragility and creativity as described by Professor Lindsay Oades above.

So what has COVID-19 meant for families? What has it taught families? Families have emerged closer, having spent more time together. There is increasing levels of awareness and conversations around and about wellbeing among family members (wellbeing literacy). There are higher levels of adaptability and resilience. Finally, parents have gained and voiced greater appreciation for teachers and teaching as a profession.

What about schools and what can families continue with? COVID-19 has given schools a greater insight and understanding into their students’ lives at home, and many have also forged stronger connections with the students’ families. Schools and families should continue to embrace this newfound interconnectedness and co-agency. Families should continue to build upon the relationship by supporting their children’s education with ‘natural’ lessons at home and continuing to understand the evolving learning needs of their children including resourcing and space, as well as what distracts them.

One of the biggest lessons drawn from the COVID-19 experience from a policy perspective is that family involvement should be brought further into the student learning process. The best outcome for student learning and wellbeing is when there is a cohesive effort by and partnership between the student, family and school.

All expert panel members acknowledged and reflected on the huge amount of goodwill teachers have shown in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. They paid tribute to, and thanked, all the teachers and school leaders worldwide for their incredible work, leadership and courage.

A recording of the webinar available for viewing.

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